As you might recall, after Robin Williams died in August of this year, the Woodside, California-based Gorilla Foundation announced that Koko, their famous gorilla, was in mourning, having met the actor several years before. This inspired at least one of you to ask "Why the hell did they tell her?" Apparently, SFist commenter L_Mariachi wasn't the only one asking that question, as that query was the topic of a recent "Ethicist" column in the New York Times magazine.
As previously reported, Williams had met Koko in 2001. According to the Gorilla Foundation folks, Williams made her smile for the first time in six months, ever since her childhood gorilla companion, Michael, had passed away at the age of 27. You can see that encounter here:
When Williams died on August 11, calls regarding Williams' death began to come into the facility, they said, and Koko approached Foundation co-founder Dr. Penny Patterson "with an inquiring look on her face."
Patterson told Koko that "we have lost a dear friend, Robin Williams," a spokesperson said. Later in the day, after hearing another person break down in tears, Koko signed "CRY LIP," withdrew, and "became very somber, with her head bowed and her lip quivering," a Gorilla Foundation spokesperson said.
"I cannot fathom the ethical reasoning behind telling Koko about Williams’s death," Oakland woman Rita Long now asks Chuck Klosterman, aka The Ethicist for the New York Times Magazine.
"What is the point of telling her about the death of someone she met once, 13 years ago?" Long asks. "The press reports dwelt on the fact that she appeared sad. I don’t think any of us can know if she was sad or not — but even if this news opens the possibility of making her unhappy, it seems cruel to bring this into her life. What moral purpose does it serve?"
(As the reporter who wrote at least one of the press reports to which Long is referring, I asked myself the same question re Koko's sadness over a person she met once a long time ago. Even more crassly, I wondered if the Gorilla Foundation folks were exploiting the death of a beloved local figure to promote their agenda of gorilla/human connection. After watching that video and being moved by it, I decided that the comfort I found — and, I hope, you guys did — in it beat out any of my cynicism. But that's just me.)
Klosterman's response is wide-ranging, beginning with "What’s the ethical justification for teaching Koko sign language and trying to communicate human ideas that have no bearing on her life?" before noting that "And since an ape can’t comprehend the concept of 'celebrity,' [Ed note: oh, to be a gorilla] that meeting should be no more intrinsically meaningful than any one-time interaction Koko shared with anyone else."
“I would question the ethics of not telling Koko about this death,” vet Vint Virga tells Klosterman, saying "Animals and humans both experience joy and sadness throughout their life. Why would you want to shelter a gorilla from that experience? I believe a gorilla absolutely has the ability to understand the loss of someone who was important to her, and animals are often able to deal with grieving and loss more effectively than humans.”
"Is it moral to tell a gorilla bad news? We may never really know. But we certainly won’t know if we never try," Klosterman concludes. It's a very thought-provoking discussion, check it out here.
Previously: Koko The Gorilla Mourns Robin Williams